BP engineers moved a few steps closer Sunday to installing a snug-fitting cap on the broken Gulf of Mexico well that may finally allow the collection of all of the oil leaking from it - currently estimated at up to 60,000 barrels per day.
The achievements involved a few preparations necessary for the installation of the cap - including the unbolting and removal of a large flange - that served as reminders the gulf's fate rests in part on a high-stakes plumbing job. If all goes well, the cap is expected to be installed between Wednesday and Sunday. That would eventually allow BP to direct 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil per day to four different containment ships floating 5,000 feet above the leak on the ocean floor.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod, appearing on Fox News Sunday and ABC's This Week, said the administration was "reasonably confident" all of the oil could be contained by the end of July.
"We have every reason to believe that this will work," he said.
But Axelrod also sounded a note of caution: "Obviously," he said, "this thing is uncharted waters."
BP has chalked up a number of failures in its attempt to solve the crisis since the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast. In this case, the stakes are particularly high: To install the new sealing cap, it was necessary to remove an older cap installed in early June which, although imperfect, had been able to capture about 15,000 barrels of oil per day, at best.
Since the old cap's successful removal on Saturday, the uncorked well has been gushing anew, making every moment crucial for the crews in the gulf working on the undersea fix.
While extra skimming boats swarmed the surface near the spill site to take up the extra oil Sunday, crews used undersea robots to yank six 52-pound bolts from the existing structure and remove the large flange. That allowed them to begin installing a 12-foot high, 15,000-pound piece of equipment called a transition spool.
Resembling a giant yellow pipe joint, the spool will eventually attach at one end to the existing hardware on the ocean floor, and - a bit like an electrical outlet or headphone adaptor - allow for the installation, on the other end, of an 18-foot high, 150,000-pound series of hydraulic seals that BP officials hope will allow them to fully control the flow of the oil, directing it to the collection ships.
According to BP senior vice president Kent Wells, it is possible the cap could also "shut in" the well, stopping the flow of oil.
But even then BP will continue working on what company and government officials say is the best long-term solution: plugging the well from far beneath the Earth's surface using one of two relief wells. The closest of two relief wells being drilled near the leak site is now at a depth of 17,800 feet, and could plug the well permanently with mud and concrete by mid August.
On Sunday, the only oil being collected was flowing through the well's old choke line to a ship called the Q4000, which is taking up about 8,000 barrels per day and flaring it off.
Wells said a new ship called the Helix Producer would soon be hooked to the well - perhaps as early as Sunday evening - with the ability to take up 20,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil per day. It will take roughly three days for that system to be fully functional, Wells said.
He said BP was pleased with the progress thus far. "The challenge will come with something unexpected," he added. "It's pretty hard to forecast what that is."
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INVESTIGATION: The presidential commission appointed to study the root causes of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and recommend improvements begins work today. The seven-member commission holds hearings today in New Orleans. Eight other investigations and a Justice Department probe are ongoing.
COMPENSATION: Ken Feinberg, who's administering the $20 billion BP fund, says he's ready to give eligible victims six months of emergency payments on a single request, cutting repeated paperwork and delays.
BP: Britain's Sunday Times reports - unattributed - that BP is talking about selling $18 billion in assets.
BENEFIT: Tens of thousands, including Gov. Charlie Crist, sang and danced Sunday on an Alabama beach at a free Jimmy Buffett concert aimed at drawing visitors to the Gulf Coast.